Mississippi on the brink of total shut down due to record drought

REUTERS / Stringer
America’s record-breaking drought is drying up the Mississippi River, which is vital for commercial travel. If the country’s largest river system continues to rapidly shrink, all river traffic could get shut down and cost the US $300 million a day.

The Mississippi, which has become thin and narrow, is used for cargo vessels to transport goods. In the US, 60 percent of grain, 22 percent of oil and natural gas and 20 percent of coal travels down the river.

But its reduced size and now-shallow waters are forcing barges to either stop running or reduce the weight of the goods they carry – leading to longer waits for those products in grocery stores. Some areas of the river have dropped 20 feet below normal – and the drop is expected to continue.

“A lot of those barges have had to lighten their loads, and even doing that, they are still running aground. There is a real fear that there could be a possibility of closing the Mississippi River,” said CNN correspondent Martin Savidge. “If that happens, well, all that product that used to be carried cheaply by barge is now going to be carried more expensively by truck or train. And guess who is going to pay for all that.

If the Mississippi River is closed to all water traffic, goods like grain, oil, natural gas and coal will need to be transported by truck or train – costing the US an additional $300 million a day.

The American Queen Steamboat, which needs eight and a half feet (2.6 meters) of water to float, can no longer navigate the river after getting stuck in a town near Memphis, Tennessee. Its 300 passengers were forced to abandon their river voyage and reach their destination by bus instead.

In some parts of the Mississippi River, the saltwater is moving upriver, threatening drinking water extracted from other areas. All river traffic was shut down for 12 hours to give the US Army Corps of Engineers time to try to keep the saltwater contained.

In other areas, millions of fish are dying as the bottom of the river transforms into an exposed desert. The river flows into lakes and streams across the US, carrying the devastation to all corners of the Midwest. About 40,000 shovelnose sturgeon fish were killed in Iowa in one week as water temperatures reached 97 degrees. In Illinois, fish carcasses clogged an intake screen near a power plant, causing it to shut down one of its generators.

But in some areas, dead fish can be found shriveled up on barren land that used to be underwater.

“Hard to believe, a year ago we were talking about record flooding. Now, they are worried about a new kind of record: a record low,” said Savidge, while standing on a dried up part of the river in Tennessee. “The river was three miles wide here, it’s now down to three tenths of a mile. And that’s causing all kinds of problems.”

If the Mississippi River continues to dry out, food shortages will only be part of the concern, as the economy could be slapped by rising cargo transportation prices.